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John Bechtel gave his first public talks for the Jehovah's Witnesses at the age of five. By age nine, he was addressing audiences numbering up to 3,000. At 27, Bechtel reached a crisis of faith and resigned from the Jehovah's Witnesses. Now a passionate advocate of "life, rationality, and your own happiness," Bechtel has a unique insider's view on the seductions of cults.
Navigator: What do Jehovah's Witnesses believe?
Bechtel: Let's start with what would probably be the most important issues. Jehovah's Witnesses believe in original sin, the fall from grace. They believe that since Adam's and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden everyone has been born in sin, and therefore they die, because the wages of sin are death. They believe that the only possibility for eternal life in any form in any place is through the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ. That is, parenthetically, the only thing they celebrate; they don't celebrate birthdays or any other holidays whatsoever. Their communion, which they call the Memorial Service, is the largest attendance they draw in the entire year. They place a great emphasis on how many attendees there are at that ceremony because that gives them an idea how many new recruits they can anticipate in the following year.
They believe that only 144,000 will be taken to a life in heaven. They will form a ruling class and rule with Jesus Christ for a thousand years. But, they will remain in heaven after that period of time and those individuals are the only ones who achieve immortality. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that when you die, you're dead, period. And they believe that your only hope of future life is the memory of you that God holds and his ability and willingness to recreate you at some future time. So, the 144,000, when they die, are recreated as spirit creatures—their soul does not go to heaven because their soul is dead. Those who meet God's approval and who survive the end of the world will have the opportunity of living forever here on earth, in an earth much like the Garden of Eden. Even though you can live forever, you do not have immortality; it is still possible for you to die, should you have a fall from grace.
Apart from those things, they believe in the end of the world, when God will bring all the systems of the world as we know it to an end, mostly through the use of natural forces such as hurricanes, tornadoes, natural disasters, and so forth.
Navigator: How do you get to be one of the 144,000?
Bechtel: You really don't. Jehovah's Witnesses more than imply that you don't have any chance of getting to be in the 144,000 because they were all picked years ago. The group of 144,000 began with the immediate Disciples and Apostles of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago. A few were added to it over two millennia and whatever numbers they were short were picked around the turn of this last century. But they allow for the fact that some of the 144,000 may have had a fall from grace, and therefore need to be replaced to keep the number complete. I just read in one of their magazines that a guy that I worked with (when we were both in our early twenties) was appointed to the Governing Body. (This is their equivalent of the Pope—a collective Pope of about 18 or 20 or so leaders who lead by committee.) Being appointed to the Governing Body means that you have declared yourself to be of the heavenly class, and thus one of the 144,000. So you decide that you are one of the heavenly class, and if you have the temerity to take communion, and can keep a straight face about it for long enough, people will accept it and believe it.
Navigator: What was your involvement with the Jehovah's Witnesses?
Bechtel: I was born into it. My parents were true believers. They took most of what Jehovah's Witnesses taught them literally and tried to apply it. So, it was really all I knew when I was growing up. I wasn't allowed to associate with kids who weren't Jehovah's Witnesses. When I was 17, I left home to do missionary work for about a year and then I was called to their headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, where I had applied. That had been pretty much my chosen destiny. I went to headquarters; I was there for ten years.
When I started, I did whatever menial tasks I was assigned, which included being a waiter, and working in the bindery where we put out over sixty million hard-bound books a year (and that was in 1968). I worked through a variety of jobs in manufacturing, until I was transferred to what they called a Service Department, which is where they answer letters from congregation elders and traveling overseers. (In the Catholic Church, it would be equivalent of bishops or archbishops.) I began as secretary and eventually I got approval to be an author of the letters. I wrote for their magazines, I wrote speeches for the church leaders, and after a while I traveled widely to give speeches at their conventions.
Navigator: What sort of letter writing did you do?
Bechtel: A lot of the writing we did was like a "Dear Abby" kind of thing. We answered many personal and organizational letters. Judicial committees would want advice on how to deal with a certain situation, because Jehovah's Witnesses have an internal organization that matches the external. They have their own executive branch, judicial branch, and legislative branch. They make up their own rules, their own codes of behavior, they have their own systems of punishments and rewards, and they place greater emphasis on their own judicial system than they do on the outside world's.
Navigator: Is it true that the recipients of your letters thought that these replies were essentially from God?
Bechtel: Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, I got to be God, in that sense. That letterhead and that stamp of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society meant that it was infallible; it was from God. Once that rubber stamp went on that stationary and it was mailed, it changed people's lives.
There were people who lived and people who died based on what we wrote. For example, in the small nation of Malawi, Africa (in the 1960s), the ruler was a Dr. Banda. Dr. Banda required everyone in his country to carry a political card. They had a one-party system in Malawi of which he was the leader, but he wanted everybody in the nation to carry a party card. Well, Jehovah's Witnesses refused, and as a result of their refusal to carry this plastic, many of them were killed. So, just an organizational decision like that caused people to lose their lives.
Navigator: How did you get out, especially if they don't encourage questioning?
Bechtel: I remember when I asked my mother (when I was 13 or 14) "what do you do if you don't believe this?" because even at that age I was struggling with some issues. Her response was, "you know it is the truth with your mind, so you must have a bad heart, so, keep on doing it and pray to God to give you a good heart."—This was quite a guilt trip. Closed systems do not encourage self-esteem, because self-esteem is mind-esteem, and the only way to achieve mind-esteem is to use it, to exercise your independent judgment. So, yes, they are a closed system and no, they don't encourage questioning, except when you are in the process of converting. Something very clever happens as you go through the conversion process. They encourage you to challenge beliefs that you were raised with, and then as they show you a different way of looking at them, they gradually teach you that because they have taught you the truth with regard to these matters, you should learn to accept these authority figures now as the chosen truth-givers. And from that point forward, questioning or challenging of what you are being told would be inappropriate.
I had a growing difficulty with things that were being written and with things that I was expected to write. For example, in 1978, I put in a prospectus to write an article for their main magazine, The Watchtower. The title was going to be "Are You A Thinking Christian?" because I always thought it amazing how incapable the membership was of helping themselves and resolving the smallest issues by thinking, by logical, rational process. So, I was going to put out some practical suggestions for problem resolution. Well, my prospectus came back to me suggesting that I emphasize prayer, attending the five weekly meetings, and spending a lot of time going from door to door. I never wrote the article. I thought, "Okay, this is part of the problem." And as more of those things happened in my work, I developed greater conflicts between what I was expected to do and say, and what I could do and say in good conscience. It got to the point that I went home most days at three o'clock with a major headache just from the inner tensions, and that is when I decided I had to leave. I could not hold the job that I had and have the doubts that I had. So I left.
When I left I did not know that I was going to leave the organization. I just knew I couldn't stay in the job I had. I was terrified; I was terrified of living in the real world. I had been living in the equivalent of a monastery for ten years with two thousand single males where we worked and studied and that's all we did. And the idea of going out and finding a job, finding a place to live and incurring bills and figuring out how to pay them—all of these things were totally foreign to my nature. I'd never bought a car; I'd never had any kind of credit whatsoever. Just things that everybody else takes for granted by the time they are 16 or 17 years old I had yet to learn and I was 27. I had no real survival skills. I knew how to write. I knew how to speak. I didn't know how to hold a job or even find a job. So I was turned down by everybody, literally. I remember getting turned down by Truckstops of America to pump gas and also by Arby's when I applied for an assistant manager position. They didn't even test me. I didn't know what to put on an application. They'd ask, "Why did you leave?" What do I say? "Well, I'm, er, sort of a defrocked priest."
Navigator: How do intelligent people get drawn into cults and then fail to question?
Bechtel: It is a commonly held fallacy that cults draw in stupid people or uneducated people, and actually quite the opposite is actually true. Cults are begun and spread and become successful because of intelligent and often educated people. Jehovah's Witnesses had many well-educated thinkers in it who made it move and made it happen. Jehovah's Witnesses attract people with an intellectual hook. Their main target is Christianity, and within Christianity, their main target is the Catholic Church. Jehovah's Witnesses come along with some really basic stuff, usually of a historical nature. Their appeal is an appeal to truth. They set up some obvious things in Christendom that are easy to knock down and they do so. Then they sow seeds of doubt about your entire belief system, which is really very easy to do. After that they say, "How can you trust the people who taught you these things? Now whom should you trust? Well, obviously you should trust the people who have enlightened you, and that's us." That's very appealing. Also, they bring answers to the most asked questions: "Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do children die? What happens when you die?" They have very logical, simple answers.
For example, the vast majority of Christendom, especially the fundamentalist branches, believe in a physical hell-fire, physical torment. So Jehovah's Witnesses would say something to you like: "Let's say you had a child that was very bad. You repeatedly disciplined him, emphasized why a certain behavior was wrong, and he continued to do it. Could you take that child and place his hand on a hot stove just for a few seconds?" You'd say, "No, how absurd." They would reply, "Didn't your church teach you that God is love? How can you believe that this God who is love personified can torture bad people in a burning, fiery torment forever, when you couldn't even do it to your child who was bad for even a few moments?" Most of their answers to most questions were at that level: simple, straightforward, and hard to argue with.
Navigator: What is the appeal of cults?
Bechtel: Cults are acultural; that is, they are outside the mainstream of the societal mores that prevail at the time. Therefore they are often ostracized due to their differences, which inevitably tightens the communal bonds between them. Because they become isolated from the mainstream, it becomes even more important to reaffirm the rightness of their choices. A basic appeal of cults is a desire for certainty. I think another value of cults is a certain elitism: we have the answers, you don't, and you need us to get the answers. Another major component of a cult is a mission: either God needs us, or the world needs us, and we are the only ones who have been gifted and burdened with this mission, and we must do this. Another common characteristic of a cult is a central authority figure. When you have an infallible final authority who is not to be challenged, this leads directly to another component of a cult: coercion. Sometimes the coercion is a physical threat, but more often than not it is a psychological coercion. You are perfectly free to leave, but you are scared to death to try. But, any one of these by itself doesn't make a belief system a cult.
Cults show up in almost any field of human endeavor. Any time you organize a human endeavor it takes fanaticism to get anything off the ground. It took fanaticism to create Objectivism. It took fanaticism to break with the culture of Democrats and Republicans, to break with the philosophy of postmodernism and everything before it. The same is true of business start-ups. Those that succeed often quickly develop very strong internal cultures. For example, it took a very charismatic leader like Sam Walton to drag that whole organization along behind him. Wal-Mart today employs over a million people, yet it still bears his personal stamp. So, yeah, there is a certain fanaticism; I mean, Sam Walton was a fanatic for what he did, and he had to be, or that empire would never have happened. So sometimes the difference between a cult and a culture is who is doing the name-calling, or time and acceptance.
Of course, Wal-Mart is not a cult because its success is by definition dependent upon its interactions with the world outside of Wal-Mart. Due to their insular nature, cults keep the rest of the world outside, and the longer they maintain their closed society, the more likely they are to experience a break with reality. A break with reality can take the form of anything from fallacious reasoning to psychotic behavior. Theological structure within cults is often based on the classical fallacies of erroneous argumentation and logic. Within a closed society, honest inquiry ceases to exist because they already know all the answers. Outside challenges to their beliefs are viewed either scornfully or as a form of persecution. When you commit to a position on anything that contradicts the facts of reality, you are also committing to continually reinforcing your adopted position, through consciously dishonest means if necessary. With circular reasoning the "logical" links in your reasoning are tenuous at best and the smallest break in the chain cannot be tolerated or the entire thing falls apart.
Minds close when a movement's members become convinced of both the rightness and completeness of their knowledge. It is at this point that it becomes dogma to which nothing can be added or subtracted without official sanction. A close companion to this development is the apotheosis of the leaders and founders of the movement to the point where every detail of their lives become sacrosanct. Cults tap into the very human need for heroes.
We need heroes because we need ideals to strive for. In the arts and especially literature, we are inspired by heroes who live their lives in ways we want to but often don't. When we take our heroes from real life it is very easy to imbue them with mythic qualities so that they more closely fit our ideal. Hence the need to venerate celebrities of many descriptions. In the real world the danger lies in projecting onto our heroes qualities they don't really possess. This lies at the heart of almost all cults and most likely it is when a cult member experiences the reality of their less-than-heroic leadership that they finally leave a cult.
We want our heroes to perfectly embody in their personal lives the values that drew us to them in the first place. Regrettably, this usually doesn't happen in the real world, and we have to settle for less than perfect examples of our ideals. If we are committed to the faulty premise that the life of a leader must perfectly embody the values he taught/wrote, we are setting ourselves up for failure, for the smallest contradiction or inconsistency in their life will disillusion us. At this point, if we can say, "Okay, I subscribe to the ideals or premises these persons promoted, but I know they don't always live up to their own ideals," we are mentally healthy. We understand what an ideal is: a higher standard to aspire to, and a reference to which we and others can correct ourselves along the way.
In movements that become cultish, the leader becomes the movement, and a flaw in the leader becomes a perceived flaw in the movement. The true believer then has to choose between the reality of a flawed founder or leader, or he has to depart from reality and project onto the leader the perfection that is not there. Otherwise, he feels he would have to reject everything he believes in—something that could shatter the foundations of his life. To bring this close to home, if an Objectivist equated the philosophy of Objectivism with the person of its author and founder, he might feel compelled to reject Objectivism if he perceived some personal failings in the life of Ayn Rand. Unwilling to do so, he might then, as a substitute, need to justify every action of her life as being totally consonant with her teachings, and when necessary to project onto her the perfect qualities needed to maintain his premise. He has unwittingly bought into a reverse ad hominem argument, that a criticism of Ayn Rand is an attack on her philosophy.
In the debate over cults I am reminded of what New York Times columnist Russell Baker wrote about almost thirty years ago. "What I despise most about all minorities is their implied assumption that if the tables were turned they would be different." The desire to subordinate the facts of reality to our wish to believe (in order to fill a variety of emotional needs) is seductive and something no one is totally immune to. Cultish behavior can be a trademark of individuals as well as organizations. Ultimately there is no better defense against the lure of cultism than the respect for the sovereignty of one's own mind.